You think there’s no hope.
You look around you. The country is descending into fascism. The president is unhinged. But even if he leaves, there is a country full of radicalized followers who have lost touch with reality, and plenty of people to take the mad leader’s place.
Concentration camps. Mass shootings. Mainstream bigotry.
The world itself is no better off. Other once-free countries have fallen prey to the same patterns that have overtaken America. The tech revolution was a revolution that connected us all and radicalized us all.
The people who want to escape America, then, who have dreams of running away to some paradise, don’t realize that in today’s world, there is nowhere to run.
Maybe that’s why you turn off the news. Or maybe it’s why you’re addicted to the news. Either way, you’re distracting yourself. Turning the pain numb or pretending there is no pain.
It’s hopeless, so we either ignore or wallow. Like a person suffering from depression, we abuse drugs to pretend we don’t have it or we get into bed and shut the shades and just surrender to it.
That’s the hopelessness I see in the good people around me, the sensitive people. The finest people are the ones who are ignoring it all or descending into it. They are sensitive, they are alive, and to feel the closing darkness is too much for them.
What’s left? The people with callouses on them. The people who have been through fights and can handle it. The ones who have shut off a part of their hearts so they can keep their eyes open as they swing their punches… and get punched right back.
There is one more group, actually.
Call them the foolish ones. They’re the people who seem to still be radiating some sort of love even as they fight alongside the calloused ones. They’re the ones with bright eyes even with no light to reflect off of. And those eyes are wide open, not distracted or fooling themselves. They see what’s happening, and they’re fighting, but they’re alive.
I see them a lot in my work these days. They’re all over, especially when you actually see the people on the ground, the ones who are working to make change.
I think a lot of people see them as naive. Others see them as dangerous. They’re usually the ones with “radical” politics. The ones who don’t fit in, and who often have views that people consider taboo.
I mention them only because I’ve seen them in action, and I am consistently amazed at how generous and good they are while also being deeply committed to making change. They are truly hopeful.
And yet, they are often the people with the least reason for hope. Their ideas are too big or too controversial. The resistance they face from a world that refuses to change is enormous. The world they describe living in is out of a fantasy world, one you might read about in utopian fiction or religious literature.
These are not people who are the stereotyped “only good about large issues” people, the way many people imagine activists to be. I was connected to one because of a deep disagreement we had over one of the pieces I had written calling out the progressive movement. She was never angry at me, and we have since developed a friendship. And now, as I have been on the lookout for work, she has been sending me jobs she thinks I’d be good for at least a few times a week. She gets nothing out of this, and no one knows she does it.
This is just one of the innumerable kindnesses she does for others. And she is just one of the people who I can tell these tiny stories about.
I tell you not because I want you to think activists are all perfect, or that this kindness doesn’t exist in other places. I tell you this because it is notable that despite the fact that such activists tend to spend their days fighting for things that many people would see as hopeless, pointless, and naive, they are still filled with life. They are still loving. They are still giving.
By all rights, they should be cynical. They should be angry. They should be hardened. The world is angry at them, they receive death threats regularly, and they are ostracized from jobs, communities, and more.
In fact, part of what is painful in working with activists is seeing how many among them are like this. Hardened or traumatized by their fights, they are angry, often vindictive. The hope may exist somewhere, but it seems covered up more by the need to win the momentary battles.
But when we understand what they go through, and how painful it all is, I can’t help but wonder at the fact that they are not all like that. That some are the opposite of hardened. They are soft and loving and caring. In my opinion, this is a miracle.
There never should have been a Martin Luther King, who was beaten, looked at distrustfully by so many, and who, when stabbed in 1958 claimed that he “felt no ill will” towards his assailant.
There never should have been a Hannah Senesh, a Jewish resistance fighter who started her life as a pacifist and was executed at 23, and in her last letter to her mother before getting executed wrote, “Dearest Mother: I don’t know what to say — only this: a million thanks, and forgive me, if you can.”
There should not be such people, and yet they are all around us. They are the loving warriors. The soft revolutionaries. The pacifist fighters. The ones who are somehow kind until their last days, somehow giving even as the world only takes from them, somehow living Jobs but without his bitterness.
What is it that keeps these people soft despite the pain? What is it that keeps them loving despite the hate that surrounds them?
I think the answer will connect us back to the question that we started with. The question: how do we keep hope alive in a world where everything seems to be going wrong?
Well, these people, whether they be the loving activists of today or the peaceful warriors of our past, have faced more darkness than many of us have faced, and not only have kept a firm hold on their humanity, but have kept up their fight.
In other words, we look on without hope while the world darkens around us, while they look on with hope even though the world is already dark all around them.
So, they had hope when all appeared lost.
Imagine Hannah Senesh in prison, ready to die. And instead of despairing, she writes to her fellow partisans: “Continue on the way, don’t be deterred. Continue the struggle till the end, until the day of liberty comes, the day of victory for our people.”
Imagine Martin Luther King Jr, who in his last speech described the threats he was receiving, and how he wasn’t certain if he would live much longer. And instead of crying out in fear, declared in his last words to the public:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.
I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Even knowing, or intuiting, that they were at the end of their lives, they had hope. They saw light, not darkness. They saw goodness, not only the evil that had come upon them. They saw the Promised Land, even though they walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
How was that possible? How did they have such hope? Hannah Senesh was about to be put to death, without much sign that her work had made much of a difference. Martin Luther King was less popular than ever as he gave his final speech. Even some of his own allies wondered why he focused on things like Vietnam and income inequality instead of staying the safe course. And yet, his final words were not just ones of hope, but of certainty.
I think, in a sense, the spark they had, and the spark I see in the activists I have met, is that it is the very fact that they are radical that allows them to have space to be kind, to be soft, and to still have hope.
How could Martin Luther King still have confidence? How could Hannah Senesh still have love? How can any of us hold onto hope in a hopeless world?
It’s by being as radical as possible, but for good. Dreaming so big that we know it will never be accomplished in our lifetimes, but will be a rope by which we will be passing onto the next generation, and which has been thrown to us from the past. Understanding that hope is not about having what we accomplish now, but what we strive for every day. Knowing that the vision we have is so beautiful that it’s worth dying for.
There is another leader I can’t help but think of when I think of Martin Luther King. He was called “The Rebbe” and he led a Hasidic movement that now spans the globe. He took a group of Hasidic Jews who were used to running away from persecution and working hard to build lives in their small community in Brooklyn, and got them to leave Brooklyn and start religious outposts all over the world.
Now, I am not arguing for his philosophy. Instead, I ask… how is it possible for a man to do this? How can he motivate so many people only decades after the greatest slaughter of Jews in history and after escaping persecution in Russia?
Well, something I noticed after listening to Martin Luther King’s speeches is that their endings reminded me of the Rebbe. They both ended every single one of their speeches with a messianic vision. In their case, it was literal, but the point is the dream. The impossible, crazy, radical dream.
Martin Luther King imagined a world where, “justice roll[s] down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”. The Rebbe imagined a world where we could see Godliness with our own eyes.
Either way, no speech was complete without the rising crescendo of unimaginable imaginings, of a future where all was as it should be, and where we are all one, united, and complete.
Hannah Senesh was motivated by a deep belief in Zionism that caused her to leave her comfortable home and essentially become a peasant in a foreign land. It was this deep belief that motivated her to go back to Hungary in the hopes of saving some Jews to bring to Palestine. In her case, her Promised Land was literal.
All the activists I know spend a lot of time fighting what is in front of them, but a lot of time also dreaming about what could one day be. Whether it’s some socialist dream, a world free of injustice, a world where any identity and personality can be fully themselves, what they dream of is not as consequential as the fact that they dream.
And we see, then, how being idealistic, naive, and foolhardy do not make us weaker fighters in the face of hopeless obstacles, but stronger than one could even imagine. Supernaturally strong.
When Hannah Senesh was tried, she was offered the opportunity to beg for clemency. She refused. When she was put in front of a firing squad, she also refused her blindfold so she could look straight into her murderers’ eyes.
Why? Because beyond their eyes, she could see the Promised Land. She could see a world where Jews would be safe once again, and have a home.
Regardless of whether one shares that dream, the dream is what made her stronger than any of us could ever hope to be.
Or perhaps we can hope to be so strong. If only we could be so ridiculously idealistic, with the Promised Land in our vision, even as the murderers’ eyes stare at us, their guns aimed at us.